The royal barge was well on its way. Trumpets sounded a fanfare. Drums rolled, and the oracle stepped out of the curtained enclosure and bowed. He sported a thick moustache; his eyes highlighted by black liner; face powdered white; and his cheeks an overdone red. He recited the story as the dancers emerged from the enclosure and bowed and took their places.

“It was the most auspicious day of the lunar year. The stars had ordained that Princess Devaki, beautiful and chaste daughter of King Ugrasena of Mathura, was well suited to wed Prince Vasudeva of the Yadava clan.”

One after another, the performers moved; danced. Their every gesture pregnant with symbolism. Singers chanted Vedic hymns. The beat-master kept rhythm with two small cymbals. Veena and sitars; drums and tablas; and flutes and trumpets provided music.

“The wedding concluded, and the people rejoiced. But Kamsa, first son of Ugrasena and Devaki’s elder brother, heard a celestial voice.”

The actor who played Kamsa stepped forward. His eyebrows raised, and he leaned to a side with one hand cupping his ear. The chants and music stopped.

“Beware Kamsa, for the son of this union will cause your death.”

Kamsa immediately shook his chest violently. Music burst to live; he sprang and stomped about in rage. The silvery sword in his hand shivered; caught the light as he pranced and said,

“What a cursed union? Father, how can you celebrate this wedding, which is a precursor to my demise? Banish this cursed couple or better yet, put them to the sword.”

Ugrasena and the maharishis declined. An argument ensued. There was much pointing of fingers and waving of fists. Raised voices. Incoherent. Engulfed by rage, Kamsa circled his father and the wedded couple. He attacked his father. The king fell to the ground and held up his hand; implored his son to hold his anger. A lone veena sang a mournful tune. But to no avail. The oracle said,

“Kamsa exploded in anger; incarcerated his father; and danced about waving his sword left and right as he put many rishis and men of learning and wisdom to their deaths. The kingdom plunged into despair as darkness covered the weeping land.”

The music stopped. Except for the monotonous tambourine. Attendants extinguished several torches; plunged the stage into a shade of grey. The veena came alive again; crying; a soft, sad tune. One maharishi cursed Kamsa.

“Harm the innocent wedded couple and you will perish too.”

Kamsa, enraged, placed his foot on the maharishi’s head and pressed down; broke his skull. The oracle recited.

“But Kamsa was a superstitious man; looked about in terror; feared the curse. Hand on chest, he reeled backwards; held his head in faint. He did not murder Vasudeva and Devaki; but imprisoned them in a dungeon.”

About a dozen actors emerged from the enclosure. Some men were dark-skinned and oily and dressed like demons; others were light-green and pink, and in the garbs of devas. They shouted and ran from right to left, and again from left to right. Then they hurried around in circles to the beat of drums.

“The kingdom plunged into turmoil. Vasudeva’s father and the relatives of Devaki raised armies but failed to defeat Kamsa. He had won many boons from the gods and was invincible.”

The devas fell one by one and a small pile of bodies rose from the ground. Kamsa mounted a stool hidden behind the pile of bodies. He raised his arms and laughed. All around him, his demonic soldiers laughed and danced to demonic drum beats.

“Success in the military campaigns stoked the new king’s ego. He grew arrogant and cruel and fell into the dark abyss of ignorance; and became a demon. He grabbed women by their hair; kicked brahmanas and squashed beautiful flowers underfoot. And smeared his body with ash and draped himself with garlands of skulls and bones.

“Within the year, Devaki gave birth to a son. When Kamsa heard the child’s cries, he hurried to the foul dungeon and plucked the infant from the mother’s breast.”

Kamsa howled like a demon as he tossed the infant into the air and cleaved the tender body into two halves. His blood lust satiated; Kamsa danced around the kneeling couple as the couple sought solace in one another’s arms and wept till their eyes ran dry.

“And so it was that every time a child was born, Kamsa hurried down to the rat-infested dungeon and killed the innocent baby. Often, he snatched the newborn with its umbilical cord attached and sliced it into two halves.

“On the eighth year, when Devaki, heavy with child, was asleep, her husband, Vasudeva, heard a celestial voice.”

“When your eighth son is born, take him to Gokula in the region called Vrindavan, which lies across the Yamuna River. Seek Nanda Gopal, the chief cowherd of Gokula. Hi pious wife, Yashoda, will also birth a child on the same day. Leave your son with Yashoda and fetch her child to your beloved Devaki. Your son will be safe in Gokula. He will reach adulthood and fulfil his destiny.”

*** Copyright @ 2021, Eric Alagan ***

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